Chicago Theater Review: BYE BYE BIRDIE (Drury Lane)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 22, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


It’s as welcome as flowers that bloom in the spring: A cascading, minute-by-minute hit, Bye Bye Birdie is a showcase for happiness even as it merrily mocks the pseudo-innocent “togetherness” of the Eisenhower Era and the scary advent of rock ‘n’ roll. For coy or legal reasons, Elvis Presley never gets mentioned in Drury Lane Theatre’s press release or director’s note, let alone the musical. But, no question, the superstar’s two-year draft into the Army in 1958 is a headline the show trades on and sends up. Teen dream Conrad Birdie is clearly “The King,” pulsating pelvis and all. Equally plausible is his shameless PR journey to Sweet Apple, Ohio to give a pre-enlistment “one last kiss” to lucky Kim MacAfee, a Sandra Dee-wanna-be. And it’s all gonna be live, on Sunday night’s vastly popular Ed Sullivan Show no less!

The cast of Drury Lane's BYE BYE BIRDIE. Photo by Brett Beiner.

The rock star’s arrival in this Norman Rockwell burg shakes up Sweet Water, just as, 47 years before, music man “Professor” Harold Hill did River City, Iowa. Plot-wise, this is no Hairspray: The storyline is pell-mell and hit-and-miss, with the T.V. denouement occurring too early and the final duet a bit anticlimactic. But Charles Strouse’s songs are absolute delights, Michael Stewart’s dialogue is sitcom sharp, and Lee Adams’ lyrics both exploit and spoof the feel-good wholesomeness of this whitebread fantasy.

Isabelle Roberts as Sad Girl and Matt Crowle as Albert in Drury Lane's BYE BYE BIRDIE. Photo by Brett Beiner.

Tammy Mader’s pop-art revival, cleverly using video panels to expose its televised artificiality, is an irresistible doo-wop romp. It’s gloriously embellished with terrific sock-hop/American Bandstand-style dance sequences (“A Lot of Livin’ to Do”) and cunning caricatures, like Conrad’s ever-screaming fan club, that are all the more compelling for being contemporary. (Unlike Grease, no nostalgia happens here: Bye Bye Birdie is of and from its real time.)

Jason Michael Evans (center) as Conrad Birdie with the cast of Drury Lane's BYE BYE BIRDIE. Photo by Brett Beiner.

Anyway, there’s a whole lot of shaking going on with these “fish out of water” New Yorkers or “caught in the crossfire” locals. As if horny Birdie isn’t handful enough, Conrad’s overdriven 33-year-old manager and record producer Albert Peterson (Matt Crowle, doing Dick Van Dyke proud) must placate his fiery girlfriend Rose Alvarez (Michelle Aravena, doing Chita Rivera proud). Like frustrated Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, she wants this mama’s boy to marry her and become the English teacher he was meant to be. Easily cowed, milquetoast Albert must contend with his sourpuss mother Mae (Catherine Smitko, perfectly channeling Eve Arden, Elizabeth Wilson and Bea Arthur). Meanwhile, Jason Michael Evans’ swivel-hipped Conrad is just cool enough to belt out his signature ballad “Honestly Sincere” and to teach the eager Buckeye kids—a golden ensemble—just how much “livin’” they’ve got left.

Michelle Aravena (center) as Rose with cast members from Drury Lane's BYE BYE BIRDIE. Photo by Brett Beiner.

Naturally, Conrad’s synthetic dalliance with teenybopper Kim (Leryn Turlington, a tad more mature than her character) riles up her jealous boyfriend Hugo Peabody (sadsack Ryan Stajmiger). The scorned lover joins forces with Rose, as Kim does with Conrad, to straighten out their rocky romances. The love-crossed shenanigans get sorted out in a second-act showdown at the town’s notorious “Ice House.” Then it really is “Bye Bye Birdie.” (“Nothing to see, folks. Conrad has left the town.”) By then we’ve been regaled, as Mader promised, with a Top-40 Hit Parade, effortlessly ranging from the foxtrot to the Herky Jerky to the Hully Gully to the Stroll to your heart.

Michelle Aravena as Rose in Drury Lane's BYE BYE BIRDIE. Photo by Brett Beiner.There’s not a wrong note, weak spot, bad move or lost opportunity in Drury Lane’s deliriously delightful, well-worth-the-wait revival. Too smart to be sentimental, it brims with showbiz wonders: There’s the gossip girls’ contagious “Telephone Hour,” Crowle’s moxie-packed tap dance with sad-girl Isabelle Roberts in “Put On A Happy Face,” and Aravena’s go-for-broke, tour-de-force blowout with astonished conventioneers in the “Shriners’ Ballet” at the dive known as Maude’s Roadside Retreat. How not to love George Andrew Wolff and Brianna Borger as Kim’s frazzled parents lamenting “Kids,” Roger Mueller’s doofus mayor (or his excellent Ed Sullivan imitation) or the teenage twosome’s sweet-scented duo “One Boy”? Using two turntables and wizard projections, designer Christopher Ash makes the scenery sing. Sharon Sachs’ period-perfect poodle skirts and dorky jeans are time capsules in themselves. If you packed an ounce more fun into this winter sizzler, it would explode.

photos by Brett Beiner

Bye Bye Birdie
Drury Lane Theatre
100 Drury Lane in Oakbrook Terrace
Wed at 1:30; Thurs at 1:30 & 8;
Fri at 8; Sat at 5 & 8; Sun at 2 & 6
ends on March 13, 2016
for tickets, call 630.530.0111 or visit Drury Lane

for more info on Chicago Theater, visit Theatre in Chicago


Kristine January 23, 2016 at 1:21 pm

I’m glad you mentioned that Kim was a tad bit more mature. She was great, but I felt the cast should have been more teenagers. The kids were awesome!

Linda January 25, 2016 at 10:00 am

Something really big was missing! Why didn’t they sing the title song “Bye Bye Birdie??”

Editor-in-Chief Tony Frankel January 25, 2016 at 10:17 am

The song “Bye Bye Birdie” was not in the original Broadway production, Linda. As with many stage-to-film adaptations, the songs from the Broadway show do not qualify for a Best Song Academy Award nomination. Therefore, it has become a popular practice for a song to be added which will qualify. In addition, the film paled in comparison to the original because it was tailored for sex kitten Ann-Margret, for whom I believe the title song was written (she opens and closes the film with the infectious tune to which one could easily frug). To my knowledge, it has not been added to any stage productions.

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